with Tonya Riley

Law enforcement's use of facial recognition technology was always controversial. Now it's politically toxic.

Amazon's surprise announcement that it would put a moratorium on police use of its facial recognition software for the next year underscores the big questions surrounding the technology as protests spark a nationwide debate about police brutality and surveillance tactics. Amazon's brief news release never mentioned the words George Floyd, but my Post colleague Jay Greene notes the company hinted that recent events drove this decision. 

“We’ve advocated that governments should put in place stronger regulations to govern the ethical use of facial recognition technology, and in recent days, Congress appears ready to take on this challenge,” the company said in a statement. “We hope this one-year moratorium might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules, and we stand ready to help if requested.”

Tech companies have been aggressively competing to develop facial recognition software. But police use of the nascent technology has long raised alarm bells among privacy and civil rights activists. 

Now the technologists are struggling to justify selling it to police while publicly stating that they support the Black Lives Matter Movement and stand with the protesters.  

Just a few days ago, Amazon chief executive and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos was aggressively defending the company's support of the Black Lives Matter movement on Instagram. Bezos posted a hateful message he received criticizing the company's position that included racist slurs, saying he was “happy to lose” that customer.

Amazon's moratorium on its facial recognition product, called Rekognition, has key limits. It's temporary, and the company's statement only says the ban applies to its relationships with police who use it. Under these circumstances, it would be easy to dismiss the move as something of a public relations action providing Amazon cover until the controversy over the protests dies down. 

But the action from one of the most prominent players in the market probably will continue to impact the facial recognition debate in the long term.

Amazon's move is a major win for activists who have kept the pressure on governments to ban the technology. And it could give more momentum to their push for more heavy-handed regulation.  

Here's how Amazon's decision could shake up the debate over the future of facial recognition:

1. It increases scrutiny of police departments' ties to other facial recognition companies.

It's unclear how many police departments were using Rekognition before this ban. In a PBS Frontline interview earlier this year, Amazon Web Services chief executive Andy Jassy said the company had no idea how many police departments were using the software — let alone how they were employing it. 

Amazon's move highlights that relationship, and could embolden journalists and activists to more closely scrutinize how police are deploying technology in their communities. It may also put pressure on police departments to be more transparent with the public about what facial recognition software they're using, and how it's being deployed. 

Amazon certainly isn't the only player in town. Microsoft has been aggressively pushing into facial recognition as well, and my colleague Drew Harwell has noted there are a host of other tech companies law enforcement can turn to for this technology. Drew wrote last year that some police agencies have in recent years run facial-recognition searches against state or FBI databases using systems built by contractors such as Cognitec, IDEMIA and NEC.

2. It puts the ball in Microsoft's court to make a similar move.

For years, Microsoft has sought to position itself as a responsible player in the facial recognition business. Microsoft president Brad Smith made a big splash when he announced the company was pushing for regulation of the technology in 2018, and he's highlighted times the company has refused customer requests for ethical reasons. 

But this week the Microsoft has been silent on the issue. 

Privacy advocates are turning up the pressure, calling for Microsoft to also back down in the wake of Amazon's announcement and IBM's statement it would stop providing general facial recognition systems entirely earlier this week. 

“Microsoft is another one of the largest vendors of police-used face surveillance,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Matthew Guariglia wrote in a blog post. “It must now follow suit and end government use of its facial recognition program.”

3. It highlights a body of research showing facial recognition is less accurate in identifying people of color.

Late last year, a landmark federal study on facial recognition cast broad doubts about the accuracy of the technology. Asian and African American people were up to 100 times more likely to be misidentified than white men, depending on the particular algorithm used by the software, Drew reported. The technology was least accurate in identifying Native Americans of all ethnicities. African American women were falsely identified more often in the searches police use to compare a photo to a database of thousands or millions of people to identify a suspect. 

The federal report, prepared by The National Institute of Standards and Technology,  confirmed previous studies that found similar error rates.

Notably, Amazon did not submit its algorithms for NIST to evaluate. The algorithms came from a range of major tech companies and surveillance contractors, including Idemia, Intel, Microsoft, Panasonic, SenseTime and Vigilant Solutions.  

4. It raises questions about federal agencies' continued use of Rekognition.

Amazon's announcement did not address its relationships with federal law enforcement agencies, which have also been controversial. 

Amazon has sought to position itself as more willing to work with government agencies in this space than Microsoft. Drew previously reported Amazon pitched its system to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to help them identify or target immigrants. 

“We will serve the federal government, and they will have to use the technology responsibly,” Jassy said at the 2019 Code Conference after being asked if the company worked with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “Any government department that’s following the law, we will serve them.

The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment on what its moratorium means for relationships with federal law enforcement or other government agencies. Amazon did say it would continue to allow Rekognition to be used to address child exploitation and human trafficking. 

“We will continue to allow organizations like Thorn, the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and Marinus Analytics to use Amazon Rekognition to help rescue human trafficking victims and reunite missing children with their families,” the company said in the statement. 

5. It increases pressure on Congress to regulate the technology.

Lawmakers from both parties have previously expressed interest in regulating facial recognition. The Democrats' sweeping police reform package introduced this week would prohibit the use of facial recognition on real-time body cam footage and limit the use of the technology on existing footage unless a warrant is obtained. 

Previously lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee have expressed interest in pursuing bipartisan regulation. Chair Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) praised Amazon's decision to institute the moratorium. "The Oversight Committee has held multiple hearings on this issue, which revealed serious demographic problems with facial recognition technology," she said in a statement. "Those hearings have been the foundation in our efforts to formulate bipartisan legislation and provide guardrails against government overreach. We intend to introduce this legislation in the near future.”

Amazon says it's willing to participate in the debate over facial recognition in Congress, but it will be challenging for lawmakers to pass meaningful reform in a heated election year as it grapples with the fallout of the pandemic and widespread racial unrest. 

Privacy advocates are skeptical of that commitment from Amazon. The American Civil Liberties Union called on Amazon to press Congress to institute a blanket moratorium on the technology. 

“This surveillance technology’s threat to our civil rights and civil liberties will not disappear in a year, Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said in a statement. “Amazon must fully commit to a blanket moratorium on law enforcement use of face recognition until the dangers can be fully addressed, and it must press Congress and legislatures across the country to do the same." 

Our top tabs

The European Union plans to file formal antitrust charges against Amazon over its treatment of third-party sellers. 

The charges could be officially filed as early as next week, marking the latest step in The European Commission's nearly two-year probe into the tech giant, Valentina Pop and Sam Schechner report for the Wall Street Journal. 

“The charges—called a statement of objections—stem from Amazon’s dual role as a marketplace operator and a seller of its own products, the people said,” the Journal reports. “In them, the EU accuses Amazon of scooping up data from third-party sellers and using that information to compete against them, for instance by launching similar products.”

U.S. lawmakers and regulators are also scrutinizing these relationships. The House Judiciary Committee has questioned whether Amazon misled Congress in its testimony about its relationships with sellers, following Journal reporting that exposed the online retailer at times leveraged data from other sellers to create competing products.

Facebook will now allow ads for nonmedical face masks from vetted companies and merchants.

It's a limited rollback of a sitewide ban of masks of all forms instituted by the company in March to crack down on scammers and price gouging of medical face masks needed by front-line workers. 

“Many health authorities now advise wearing nonmedical masks — and in some places masks are required for activities like taking public transportation or visiting a store — and we’ve seen people and businesses of all sizes working to fill this need,” Rob Leathern, Facebook director of product management, wrote in a blog post announcing the change.

Despite an effort to crack down on coronavirus opportunists, there have been numerous reported incidents of mask advertisements still appearing on both Facebook and Instagram after the March ban. One retailer, ZestAds, produced more than 30 different Facebook video ads for masks during the pandemic, BuzzFeed News reported. The company advertised the masks using misleading medical claims and several customers reported never receiving their purchases. Facebook removed the ads and banned ZestAds in May after BuzzFeed alerted Facebook.

Facebook will also limit advertising to companies or merchants who have a four-month history of advertising on the site to cut back on scammers. Ads for medical and respiratory face masks, which are still in short supply, are still banned.

A European company acquired GrubHub, ending the possibility of a controversial merger between the food delivery app and Uber.

Just Eat Takeway, a European food delivery platform, will purchase the company for $7.3 billion, the New York Times reports.

“I am excited that we can create the world’s largest food delivery business outside China,” Jitse Groen, the chief executive of Just Eat Takeaway, said in a statement to the Times. 

Uber, which has its own food-delivery platform UberEats, had been in talks to acquire GrubHub. But the pending merger quickly attracted scrutiny from Democrats because it would have given Uber more than a 50 percent share of the U.S. food delivery service market. 

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who urged the Federal Trade Commission to monitor the pending deal, said Uber made the right move by backing away from the deal. 

“During this pandemic, when millions are out of work and many small businesses are struggling to stay afloat, our country does not need another merger that could squelch competition,” Klobuchar said in a statement.

Uber will continue to explore other deals in the food delivery sector, a representative told the Times.

Facebook's role in helping the FBI catch a child predator in 2017 is complicating the debate over whether police should have access to encrypted communications.

The company worked with a third-party company to develop a hacking tool that was then shared with the Justice Department to lead to the capture of a notorious child-predator, Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai at Vice reports.

It's the only time that Facebook has ever helped law enforcement hack a target, Lorenzo reports. It's unclear whether the FBI knew that Facebook was involved. But the story complicates a months-long feud between Facebook and the Justice Department, which has lambasted the company's move to make encrypted messaging the default for users. Officials say it will allow child predators to operate beyond law enforcement's reach.

The case is a rare public example of how law enforcement can use lawful hacking to gather incriminating evidence without tech companies creating a backdoor into encrypted communications that they argue would make their users’ data more vulnerable to malicious hacking, Joseph Marks notes

Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress are demanding information from Juniper Networks about an alleged National Security Agency spying backdoor into its encryption. That could shed light on how effective such backdoors are at gathering information and the extent to which they endanger other users, Joseph writes.

Rant and rave

Twitter wants users to try something new: reading an article before hitting retweet.

The company will experiment with a new prompt for Android users that will ask them if they want to open an article before sharing it. It's part of the company's ongoing efforts to improve the health of conversation on the platform. From Twitter:

Stanford Internet Observatory's Renee DiResta points out that adding “friction” to the user experience could cut down on clickbait.

Facebook's head of security applauded the idea:

NBC News's Brandy Zadrozny had an idea for taking the feature even farther:

Hill happenings

Democrats are raising concerns about the possible use of facial recognition technology during recent protests against police brutality.

The use of such technology has a chilling effect on all our protected First Amendment activities, Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) wrote in a letter to Attorney General William P. Barr and acting Department of Homeland Security secretary Chad Wolf.

The trio asks for the date and locations of activities where facial recognition was used as well as what systems were employed. It also requests answers about any personally identifiable information the agencies have gathered about participants at protests.

The letter follows a litany of similar requests from Democratic lawmakers about protest surveillance over the past two weeks. 

Meanwhile, Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee are urging Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg to take action against Trump's violent posts. 

The lawmakers ask what changes the company is considering in light of employee criticism and whether Facebook will commit to “removing, flagging, or otherwise taking action to address such posts by world leaders going forward," in a letter sent yesterday

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) took a big swing at tech executives during a meeting with the media yesterday:

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Coronavirus fallout

European Union regulators are hammering social media platforms' handling of coronavirus misinformation. 

The European Commission yesterday called companies including Facebook, Google and Twitter to submit monthly reports to the body about how they're handling virus-related misinformation, Hadas Gold at CNN reports. The request comes under a 2018 code of conduct that the companies already signed onto, following an onslaught of coronavirus misinformation that researchers and world leaders are calling an "infodemic." 

"Some of these are aimed at harming the E.U .and its member states, trying to undermine our democracies, the credibility of the E.U. and of national authorities," European Commission Vice President Josep Borrell said at a news conference. "What is more, this information in times of the coronavirus can kill."

The European Commission also announced that TikTok, which is owned by China's ByteDance, has signed onto the code of conduct – a major step toward courting approval from European regulators. Talks are being held with Facebook-owned WhatsApp, the commission said. 

The E.U. is planning to make the 2018 code of conduct binding regulation this year.

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Daybook

  • Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai will speak at the Federalist Society's conference on covid-19 and the law today at 11:30 a.m.
  • George Washington University’s Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics will host a virtual forum on the coronavirus and social media disinformation on June 16 at 10 a.m.
  • The House Financial Services committee will host a hearing on how cybercriminals are exploiting the covid-19 pandemic on June 16 at noon.

Before you log off

Okay, but what is he dressed up as? Wrong answers only.

(Bezos owns The Washington Post. We still don't know what this costume is.)